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SALT - Parashat Behar-Bechukotai 5781

  • Rav David Silverberg
Motzaei Shabbat
            After promising Benei Yisrael great rewards for faithfully observing His commands, God proclaims in Parashat Bechukotai, “I am the Lord your God who has taken you from the land of Egypt, from your being slaves to them” (26:13).  He then adds, “va-eshbor motot ulekhem” – “and I have broken the bars of your yoke,” comparing Benei Yisrael’s release from Egyptian bondage to the breaking of the harness of the yoke placed on an ox, though which it is attached to the plow.  Rashi, commenting on this verse, writes that the word “motot” actually refers to the pegs which hold the yoke in place.  Specifically, Rashi identifies the “motot” as pegs which keep the reins of the plow attached to the harness, so the yoke will not separate from the ox.
            It has been suggested that there might be great significance to the fact that, according to Rashi, God speaks here not of breaking the yoke itself, but rather the small pegs which hold the yoke in place.  Freedom can often be achieved by simply eliminating the “pegs” – the small matters that hold us down.  Sometimes we feel hindered and restrained by a large “yoke,” by some major dilemma.  It appears that achieving happiness would require some drastic change, the destruction of the large, heavy “yoke” which weighs us down, and we thus fall into despair.  While at times we are, indeed, restrained by a large “yoke,” a problem which only a drastic turn of events can resolve, very often, all we need is to break the “pegs,” undertake a relative simple measure.  This might mean introducing simple, minor changes to our routine which have a profound impact.  Sometimes, this means letting go of petty arguments, or forgiving a minor offense which was committed against us.  When we feel a heavy “yoke” on our shoulders, some dilemma that weighs heavily upon us, preventing us from achieving all we would like or from experiencing joy and fulfillment, we should perhaps see if perhaps there are small “pegs” we can beak to set us free.  Before determining that the challenges are too large to overcome, we should first determine if perhaps there are simple, modest measures we can undertake to “release” us from the “yoke” that constrains us, so we can be free to maximize our full potential and live the life we want to live.
            Amidst its discussion in Parashat Behar of the yovel (jubilee year), the Torah commands, “al tonu ish et achiv” (25:14), forbidding charging or paying unfair prices when making a transaction.  The context of this command is the law requiring the return of sold land on the yovel, a law which makes the value of property dependent upon the number of years remaining until the yovel.  The Torah demands that buyers and sellers take this factor into account when setting a price, so that buyers pay a fair price and sellers receive a fair price. 
Several verses later (25:17), the Torah appears to reiterate this command, stating, “ve-lo tonu ish et amito.”  The Gemara in Masekhet Bava Metzia (58b) famously explains that in truth, this second command introduces an entirely different prohibition – that of ona’at devarim, which forbids causing one’s fellow distress through words, such as by speaking hurtfully.  Whereas the first verse forbids ona’at mammon – causing one’s fellow financial harm through improper conduct in the marketplace, the second forbids inflicting emotional harm with words.
            Rav Azariah Figo, in Bina Le-ittim (derush 68) offers an additional explanation for the repetition of this command.  He notes that the first verse speaks of mistreating “achiv” (literally, “one’s brother”), while the second uses the word “amito” (“one’s fellow,” or “one’s comrade”).   These two terms at first appear synonymous, but Rav Figo suggests that the word “amit” connotes a degree of resemblance between the two parties.  Whereas “achiv” speaks of kinship, and this term is often used (particularly here in Parashat Behar) in reference to the kinship that exists among all members of our nation, the word “amit” indicates similarity.  Rav Figo thus proposes that the second verse, which forbids mistreating “ish et amito,” forbids deceiving somebody who is himself guilty of such behavior.  People might feel justified in deceiving or taking advantage of somebody who acts this way towards others, figuring that such a person does not deserve to be dealt with honestly or justly.  The Torah therefore repeats, “ve-lo tonu ish et amito” – that we may not deceive or take advantage of even those who have themselves treated others unfairly, who are guilty of the unethical practices which we might wish to utilize in our dealings with him.  The fact that somebody has acted improperly towards others does not allow us to act improperly towards him.
            This second verse concludes, “and you shall fear your God, for I am the Lord your God.”  Rav Figo explains that since one might feel comfortable and at ease deceiving somebody who is dishonest to others, the Torah urges us to “fear your God,” to remember that we are accountable to the Almighty.  The standards to which we are bound are those set by the Almighty, not those set by the people around us.  Even when we see others act unethically, we must conduct ourselves with yir’at Shamayim, genuine fear of God, adhering to the strict standards of integrity and morality which the Almighty demands from His treasured nation.
            Parashat Behar begins with the command of shemitta, requiring that farmers refrain from agricultural work in the Land of Israel every seventh year.  The Torah introduces this command by stating, “When you enter the land which I am giving you, the land shall observe a rest for the Lord.  For six years you shall plant your field, and for six years you shall prune your vineyard and gather its produce.  But on the seventh, there shall be a year of complete rest for the land…” (25:2-4).
            Rav Meir Simcha Ha-kohen of Dvinsk, in Meshekh Chokhma, notes that the Torah introduces the concept of shemitta, of the land “resting,” even before mentioning that Benei Yisrael should till the land for six years.  The Torah first establishes that “the land shall observe a rest,” and only then says, “For six years you shall plant your field…”  Rav Meir Simcha explains that the concept of shemitta is relevant not only after six years, when the shemitta year begins in practice, but even during the six years when the land is tilled.  Right from the outset, from the time that Benei Yisrael “enter the land which I am giving you,” they must be cognizant of the fact that “the land shall observe a rest for the Lord,” that their rights to the land are inherently limited.  The knowledge that they must leave the land fallow during the seventh year affects their mindset and outlook on their relationship to the land even during the preceding six years.
            The practical halakhic expression of this cognizance, Rav Meir Simcha writes, is found in the ruling of the Talmud Yerushalmi (Pesachim 4:9) regarding a vineyard that one planted as a donation to hekdesh (the Temple treasury).  When shemitta arrives, the Yerushalmi establishes, the laws of shemitta pertain to this vineyard, and the Temple treasury cannot sell the produce, just as ordinary farmers cannot sell their produce during the shemitta year.  One explanation given for this halakha in the Yerushalmi is that the institution of shemitta preceded the consecration of the property.  Already from the outset, when the individual planted the vineyard for hekdesh, his ownership and control over the property was inherently limited by the institution of shemitta.  He can donate to hekdesh only that which he owns – and thus the shemitta year is, from the outset, excluded from the donation, as the individual himself never had rights over his land during shemitta
Rav Meir Simcha thus suggests explaining the introductory verse to Parashat Behar – “When you enter the land which I am giving you, the land shall observe a rest” – to mean that from the moment Benei Yisrael took possession of the Land of Israel, the shemitta year was excluded from their possession.  Although the restrictions begin only with the onset of the shemitta year; fundamentally, even during the preceding six years, the farmers’ control and authority over their property is limited by virtue of the prospect of the shemita year.  Right when Benei Yisrael entered the land, they were told that they were being given the land so they could enjoy and benefit from it – but that ultimately, the land belongs to the Almighty, and it is by His grace and with His permission that they were invited to cultivate it and reap its benefits.
            Parashat Bechukotai begins with God’s description of the great blessings He promised to bestow upon Benei Yisrael in reward for their faithful compliance with His laws.  These blessings include material prosperity, an abundance of produce to the point where “you will eat very aged produce, and you will remove the old because of the new” (26:10).  Rashi explains the first half of this verse to mean that the produce would remain fresh for an extended period, thus allowing the people to eat the land’s yield even long after the harvest.  In the second half of the verse – “you will remove the old because of the new,” Rashi explains, God foresees that the people would have to remove old produce from the warehouses to make room for the newly harvested produce.  Ibn Ezra cites those who explain that the old grain would be brought to the fields to be planted and reproduced.  The Rashbam writes that the old produce would be taken out to be sold.  According to Seforno, the old grain would be used to feed members of other nations.
            Rav Yisrael of Modzhitz, in Divrei Yisrael (Parashat Bamidbar), suggests that this description might also serve as a symbol of the constant renewal for which we must strive in our religious lives.  Each day, the Divrei Yisrael writes, we must endeavor that “yashan mipenei chadash totziu” – that we remove the old to make way for the new.  Rather than feel content with our past accomplishments, we should “remove” these successes from our minds and focus our attention on the “new” – the new possibilities and opportunities which currently present themselves.  The agricultural surplus which God foresees may be seen as a model for the ongoing process of growth that we should seek to undergo each day.  Just as the farmers are described as removing the old grain from their warehouses to make space for the new produce, so must we try to overcome the tendency to feel content and complacent with what we’ve already achieved, and commit ourselves to greater achievement.
            The Divrei Yisrael’s comments to this verse bring to mind the story told in the Gemara (Bava Metzia 85a) of Rabbi Zeira, who, upon moving from Babylonia to Israel, sought to forget all the Torah knowledge he had accumulated in the Babylonian academies.  He wanted so desperately to forget his Torah that he observed one hundred fasts, pleading to God that he should lose his knowledge.  One approach to understanding Rabbi Zeira’s conduct is that he sought to ensure that his past scholarly accomplishments would not lead to complacency and stagnation.  He left Babylonia in order to explore new horizons of Torah scholarship under the scholars of the Land of Israel.  For this venture to succeed, he would have to remove the “old grain” from his “warehouse,” to put aside everything he’s achieved until then, so he could ambitiously pursue new information, new styles, and new methods.  Rabbi Zeira thus exemplified the blessing of “yashan mipenei chadash totziu,” of constantly striving to build upon past success, instead of falling into complacency.  He showed that we must never allow our “old grain” to hold us back, but we must instead use all that we’ve accomplished as a foundation for further progress.
            The Torah in Parashat Behar discusses the various laws that apply during yovel – the jubilee year – including the return of sold lands to their original owners.  After presenting this law, the Torah proceeds to establish that the return of lands during yovel affects their sale price during the other years.  Since the transaction is inherently temporary, the value of the property will depend on when during the yovel cycle the land is purchased.  The same property sold forty years before the jubilee will have greater value than it would ten years later, because the buyer will have ten fewer years in which to benefit from it.  The Torah commands in this context, “al tonu ish et achiv” (25:14) – that buyers and sellers must act fairly in setting prices.  The simple meaning of the verse is that it forbids those who sell land to charge reasonable prices that take into account the number of years remaining until the yovel.  However, the Gemara (Bava Metzia 51a) establishes that this prohibition – “ona’a” – applies also to the buyer, and thus just as a seller may not charge an unreasonably high price for his merchandise, a buyer may not pay an unreasonably low price.
            While the technical prohibition of ona’a relates to fairness in the marketplace, warning buyers and sellers not to take advantage of the other party’s limited knowledge of the merchandise’s value, we might also point to a broader concept underlying this law.  Just as we must not deceive others by overpricing merchandise, likewise, we must avoid deceiving ourselves by overvaluing and overpaying for the many different kinds of “merchandise” available to us in this world.  Each day of our lives, we have decisions to make about how much time, effort and money to invest in different things.  We need to choose which material possessions to acquire, and how much we are prepared to pay for each.  We need to choose which relationships to invest in, and how much to invest in them.  And we need to choose which activities we wish to invest in, and how much of an investment to make.  The prohibition of ona’a warns that people are prone to being misled into paying unreasonably high prices for cheap property.  Just as a large, high-quality field outwardly appears valuable, but the imminent onset of yovel lowers its true value, likewise, many things in life seem very valuable, and worth a considerable investment, but in truth, they offer us minimal benefit.  We must therefore ensure not to “sell” ourselves “property” at an unreasonably high cost, not to “pay” more than we should for possessions and pursuits that offer us limited value.
            As mentioned, the prohibition of ona’a also forbids buyers from paying an unfairly low price for merchandise.  If we want to acquire something truly valuable, we must be prepared to pay for it in full.  Just as we must avoid the mistake of investing too much in things which offer little value, so must we avoid the mistake of investing too little in things which, if we pay the proper “price,” offer us great benefits.  When it comes to that which has true, eternal value, we must be willing and prepared to make a considerable investment.  The command of ona’a alerts us to the need to carefully determine the true value of all the available “merchandise” in the world, so we avoid paying too much for things that offer us little, and paying too little for things which are truly precious.
            The Torah in Parashat Behar addresses a situation where one’s fellow falls into financial straits, and it commands, “you shall support him…so that he may live with you” (25:35).  In the next verse, the Torah presents the prohibition against lending on interest, indicating that the “support” which the Torah requires refers to granting loans. 
Rashi, citing Torat Kohanim, explains that the Torah speaks here specifically of a person who has come upon hard times, but has yet to fall into poverty.  The Torah commands us to lend him assistance to prevent his decline into a state of destitution, to help him recover so that he never reaches the point of actual depravation.
            Rav Zalman Sorotzkin, in his Oznayim La-Torah, notes that the Torah describes the situation as involving a person who “mata yado imakh” – faces financial straits “with you,” in one’s locale, or surroundings.  The reason this is emphasized, Rav Sorotzkin explains, is because one who sees a struggling neighbor might wonder what purpose would be served by assisting him, given that countless other struggling people live throughout the world.  As no one person can solve world poverty, we might be disinclined to help the struggling individual who is “imakh,” in our community, figuring that in any event we cannot help everyone.  The Torah therefore emphasizes that our obligation is to assist whom we can.  Although our help will not have the effect of significantly reducing worldwide poverty, nevertheless, we need to see the individual in our midst who needs help, and extend to him whatever help we can provide.
            This applies not only to charity, but to any sort of contribution to society that we are capable of making.  When we consider the many different kinds of problems and crises facing the world, our instinct might be to despair, and to conclude that since in any event we cannot even come remotely close to solving them all, we should not bother trying.  The Torah here bids us to focus our attention on “imakh,” on the problems that we see around us which we can help alleviate, the problems which we can help ease, and the needs which we can help provide.  Rather than feeling helpless, we should feel empowered by the frequent small opportunities we are given to contribute, and enthusiastically seize each one so we each do our humble share to make the world better.
            The final section of Parashat Bechukotai addresses various forms of donations which one may pledge to hekdesh – the Temple treasury.  One type of pledge – known as “arakhin” – is a vow to donate the symbolic “value” of a specified individual, and the Torah delineates how the sum is determined for fulfilling such a pledge.  The Torah establishes that when it comes to this kind of pledge, a dispensation is given if the donor is poor.  The person whose “value” he pledged is brought before a kohen who makes an assessment and determines how much should be paid based on the financial capabilities of the donor (27:8).
            The question arises as to why it is necessary for the person whose “value” was pledged to be assessed by the kohen, given that in any event, the determined sum is based on the donor’s financial abilities.  What purpose is served by the ceremonial assessment of the person, if the kohen decides upon a sum not on the basis of this individual’s “worth,” but rather on the severity of the donor’s economic struggles?
            The Ralbag explains that this is done so that people do not undermine or question the seriousness of nedarim (vows).  If the kohen would arrive at a new, lower sum without formally assessing the person whose “value” was pledged, then his decision would come across as entirely arbitrary, and thus people will reach the conclusion that the amounts stated in a pledge are not binding at all.  The kohen therefore assesses the individual and declares an adjusted sum following his reassessment, to make it clear that the sums are not determined arbitrarily, and people are, generally, required to pay the full amount their pledged.
            Rav Zalman Sorotzkin, in his Oznayim La-Torah, notes several other answers which have been offered.  One is that the individual is brought before the kohen for an assessment in the hope that he will volunteer to pay the difference.  Upon seeing that he is being “appraised” at a lower amount than others in his category, he might feel uneasy about this assessment, and will then be motivated to pay the difference to reaffirm his sense of self-worth.
            Symbolically, perhaps, this might provide instruction for situations where one feels insecure or uncertain about his “value.”  When we feel uncomfortable with ourselves, we are best advised to work toward “paying” the “difference,” towards accomplishing more.  Feelings of insecurity should lead us not to despair, and not to resent towards those who seem to undervalue us, but rather to redouble our efforts to achieve.  They should motivate us to strive, aspire and reach higher, so we achieve the most we are capable of achieving.